Two sides of the climate change coin: climate science and policy institutions

Prof. Mark Rounsevell

Prof. Mark Rounsevell


Since the first establishment of the scientific evidence for climate change, there has been a political focus on reducing GHG emissions to mitigate the problem. Increasingly however the realisation has come that the world is already committed to some level of climate change, which leads to the imperative of understanding climate change impacts and planning adaptation strategies to these impacts. The pathways along which governments pass in gathering scientific evidence and negotiating mitigation treaties is tortuous and riddled with potholes.

Assistance in this complex and often fraught process comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in gathering evidence and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in leading the climate negotiations. In this discussion we will explore how effective these institutions are in achieving their different goals, and how alternative models might, or might not, do better. We will do this by exploring the past evolution of these institutions and discussing where we are now, and what is the potential for the future.

The IPCC process

Since it published its first Assessment Report in 1995, the IPCC has been held up as a shining example of how a collective of scientists can inform policy debates affecting the global environment. The 4th Assessment report even won the IPCC the Nobel Peace prize, jointly with Al Gore. The Assessment reports are commissioned by governments worldwide (hence the Intergovernmental Panel title) to cover climate change science, impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change and climate mitigation. The 4th Report whilst winning many plaudits, including the Peace prize, was held up to detailed scrutiny and criticism by some. The famous ‘climate-gate’ and ‘glazier-gate’ episodes, and personal attacks on the integrity of contributing scientists, left a stain on the IPCC’s reputation even though the supposed errors or dubious practices were largely subsequently disproven.

The hype and pressure put on the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen raised awareness of the climate change debate considerably. The release of stolen emails from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in the run up to Copenhagen created huge media attention and provided ammunition for “sceptics” who caused mass doubt in the public about climate change science. Moreover, the IPCC fourth assessment report came under fire, notably for their claim, now shown to be wrong, that the Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035. This corresponded with a large increase in “sceptics” speaking out against climate change in the media and on the web. This clearly had an effect on public opinion about the legitimacy of climate science and even the integrity of climate scientists. A poll conducted by the BBC between November 2009 and February 2010 showed a 10% increase in people who did not believe in climate change and a 6% increase in people who believe that it is happening, but only due to natural causes.

So, now that the IPCC has released its 5th Assessment report , nearly 20 years after the first report, and with the recent Paris COP21 outcomes, perhaps it’s time to take stock of the IPCC process itself

. To what extent has the IPCC really contributed to climate mitigation policy? Is it still fit for purpose, or are there alternative models that might better achieve the ultimate aim of addressing the climate change problem? The IPCC is likely to continue in some shape or form, but what this should be in supporting the drive to limit the climate change problem is not so clear.

Background reading: The IPCC Summary for Policy makers of Working Group 2 of the 5th Assessment Report. a viewpoint from Prof Mike Hulme (UEA) and Dr. Jerome Ravetz (Innovation and Society (InSIS) at Oxford University) IPCC flooded by criticism

IPCC: Cherish, tweak or Scrap? Nature 463, 730-732 11 February 2010

IPCC Seeks ‘Broader Community Engagement’ to Correct Errors Science 12 February 2010 Stop Listening to Scientists?

Mark Rounsevell is Professor of Rural Economy and Sustainability within the School of GeoSciences. His research focuses on the effects of environmental change on rural and urban landscapes with an emphasis on the development and application of agent-based, social simulation models. Models are combined with the development of scenarios to explore the response of individuals and society to different environmental change drivers in the future

This entry was posted in climate adaptations, climate negotiations, Climate Science, Environmental Justice, Global Challenges, Interdiciplinary conversations, learning. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Two sides of the climate change coin: climate science and policy institutions

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